St. Isaac Jogues, SJ


When France laid claim to Canada, she sent over missionaries to preach the Faith to the Native Americans. Most numerous of these missionaries were the Jesuits, who began their official apostolate in 1633. Some of the Jesuits who were working among the Indians north of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River eventually crossed the border into New York State, and established missions among the Iroquois nations. Their sojourn here eventually had some success, but it was inaugurated in bloodshed. Father Isaac Jogues and his two lay companions, killed on New York State soil by the Iroquois, are today honored as martyrs by the Church.

Isaac Jogues was born in Orleans, France, in 1607. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1624, taught literature in Rouen, France, for a few years, and in 1636 was sent on the Canadian Mission.

Destined for work with fellow Jesuits among the Hurons near Georgian Bay, Ontario, he first spent some time traveling through the Great Lakes country to see where to project future Indian missions.

Thus he and his companions were apparently the first white men to view Lake Superior. On the basis of what he saw, he proposed, on his return to Quebec, that mission centers be set up among the Indians of the western Great Lakes, and even among the Sioux, near the headwaters of the Mississippi.

Leaving Quebec for the Huron country, Father Jogues and his party, on August 3, 1642, were attacked and seized by a band of Iroquois guerrillas raiding the St. Lawrence River. The Indians tortured them and marched the priest and his lay assistant, Rene Goupil, all the way down to the Mohawk capital Ossernenon, near the present Auriesville, N.Y.

Here they were again cruelly tortured, and their forefingers chewed off. On September 29, Goupil, a “paramedic” (born May 13, 1008), was killed by an Iroquois for making the sign of the cross on the forehead of a native child. Father Jogues was allowed to live, but as a slave. Ready for martyrdom, he was also ready to accept slavery, for it gave him at least an opportunity to baptize 69 dying children and to stand as a symbol of Christianity.

After 13 months, however, Dutch Protestant traders from Albany (Fort Orange) warned him that his death was being planned. He therefore accepted their help in escaping.

The Dutch sent him down the Hudson River to New Amsterdam. (He thus became the first priest to set foot in Manhattan.) They shipped him thence to France, where he landed on Christmas morning 1643.

France hailed the tortured missionary as a hero, and the Queen Regent, Anne of Austria, received him with honor. Pope Urban VIII also gave Jogues permission to say Mass despite the loss of his fingertips. “It would be unjust,” the pope said, “that a martyr for Christ should not drink the blood of Christ.”

But Father Jogues ached to return to Canada, and he was able to do so finally in 1644. In 1646, the Iroquois sought peace with the French. The missionary was sent back to his old “killing field” on the Mohawk River as a government representative. (On the trip downward he viewed and gave the name “Lake of the Blessed Sacrament” to the lovely body of water now called Lake George.) When he arrived at Ossernenon his former captors received him well, and an agreement of peace was reached. Jogues then started back to Quebec on June 16. But since he planned to come back as an accredited missionary, he left at Ossernenon a box of religious articles.

That box was to be his doom.

On September 27, 1646, the priest set out for Ossernenon once more, with another lay aide, John Lalande. Meanwhile sickness and blight had stricken the Mohawks. Although the other clans refused to think that Jogues’s box was to blame for the pestilences, the Bear Clan insisted that Isaac was a sorcerer.

A band of Bear clansmen captured the priest, his aide, and a Huron, near Lake George, tortured them, and brought them back to Ossernenon. On the evening of October 18, 1646, one of the Mohawks invited the priest to dine in his lodge. As soon as Isaac stepped inside, a brave split his skull with a tomahawk. They then cut off his head and mounted it on a pole facing north. John Lalande was killed in the same way on October 19. His body was thrown into the river.

Five Jesuits working within the present Canada were likewise martyred in 1648-49, during the course of the Iroquois-Huron War. In 1930 Pope Pius XI canonized these five, along with SS. Isaac Jogues, Rene Goupil, and John Lalande.

The blood shed at Ossernenon may not have produced a great harvest, but out of that reddened soil there sprang, a decade later, the wonderful little Mohawk saint, Kateri Tekakwitha.

--Father Robert F. McNamara